Grant Gershon is the music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. (Los Angeles Times )
Monteverdi's "Vespers for the Blessed Virgin," which was treated to a rare and exhilarating performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale on Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, is a towering masterpiece of the late Renaissance. It had its first performance in 1610 in Santa Barbara. No, not that Santa Barbara but the Palatine basilica of Santa Barbara in Mantua, Italy.
Forgotten for three centuries, the "1610 Vespers" (as the work has come to be known) was first revived in Zurich in 1935. But 15 years later in our Santa Barbara, the prominent French composer Darius Milhaud visited the Academy of the West to tell of the wonders of Monteverdi's score. In 1955, Robert Craft finally conducted the West Coast premiere of the "1610 Vespers" at the nearby Ojai Festival, and that was the revival that mattered.
Craft put Monteverdi in context of recent work by Stravinsky and Bartók. A transfixed Stravinsky attended all the rehearsals and the performance, as did the writer Aldous Huxley. A very young Marilyn Horne was one of the singers. So was a very young Paul Salamunovich, who would go on to become music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1991 to 2001.
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But it was only Sunday that Master Chorale, conducted by Salamunovich's successor, Grant Gershon, finally tackled the 90-minute collection of unbelievably sensual choral psalm settings and shockingly suggestive sacred concertos, concluding with a glorious Magnificat. Members of the period instrument ensemble Musica Angelica formed the small but powerful orchestra.
Gershon had the night before conducted Puccini in an idiomatic yet cleanly contemporary style for Los Angeles Opera's new production of "Madame Butterfly." His Monteverdi proved just as admirably true to a 400-year-earlier Italian style and just as admirably contemporary. Best of all, it was just as operatic.
These vespers made for a busy evening. Each of the seven choral numbers and the Magnificat required a different configuration, and the 40 singers were constantly on the move. The eight soloists for the song settings were drawn from the chorus and were excellent. Tenor Daniel Chaney was a standout, if an overly demonstrative one. The sopranos Suzanne Anderson and Claire Fedoruk provided notable grace. Gershon took advantage of Disney Hall to occasionally place singers in different locations for echo effects and the like.
Early music practice was practiced. The soloists ornamented the lines, some elaborately. There are different theories about what kinds of instruments Monteverdi might have used. Musica Angelica contributed a string quartet, a pair of large lutes, a small portable organ and half a dozen brass (the valveless cornets were dazzling). I subscribe to inclusion of woodwinds, but you can't have everything.
The complexity of Monteverdi's choral setting can take your breath away, especially when ricocheting rhythmic lines coming in and out of phase with the modernity of a 17th century Steve Reich. But what is most impressive about the "1610 Vespers," and certainly what was most impressive to Stravinsky and Huxley, was the way Monteverdi combined the newest styles of modern text setting that was the force behind the then brand new medium of opera with the more conventional Renaissance sacred music.
Monteverdi juxtaposed, rather than combined, old and new, so that one would illuminate the other. Every moment that goes by is a moment in which the composer tries out something new. There are no compromises, the way many so-called eclectic young composers do these days, mushing together styles or finding common ground with a backbeat. Here is music in which old and new remain old and new, respectfully.
That is what Stravinsky took away from "1610 Vespers," and that happened to be what made his late, L.A. music so movingly severe and voluptuous at the same time.
Gershon followed just such a Stravinskian path in a performance where being sexy and sacred did not result in someone being stoned, a performance suitable for the church and the theater and club. Public life is rarely like that anymore in our divisive culture. But the Master Chorale revealed how these 400-year-old Vespers remain vestiges of a better third way.
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